The Australian Constitutional Convention (ACC) commenced at some of the headiest times of Australian politics and its activities should be considered against that background. In origin the ACC was a Victorian initiative, which attracted bipartisan support. The idea for a Convention was first suggested by a Labor Member, the Hon. J.W. Galbally, MLC in 1969. It was taken up again in the following year by the Hon. R.J. Hamer, MLC, soon to become Victorian Premier. By 1972, the Commonwealth and all States had agreed to participate.
The Convention met for the first time in plenary session in 1973 in Sydney, in the first year of the Whitlam Labor Government. A planned 1974 session was cancelled four days before it was scheduled to meet because of political manoeuvrings in the Commonwealth Parliament. The 1975 session was held in Melbourne just before battle was joined in the Commonwealth Parliament over the passage of the supply Bills which ultimately led to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government; only a small number of non-Labor delegates attended. The Hobart Convention of 1976, by contrast, had its full complement of delegates and delegations including the two principal antagonists of the previous year Malcolm Fraser, now Prime Minister and Gough Whitlam, now Leader of the Opposition. The Adelaide session in 1983 was held in the first year of the Hawke Government and at the height of controversy between the Commonwealth and the States over the use of the external affairs power to block the building of the Franklin River Dam. By the time of the Brisbane session in 1985, the Federal Government was planning a new process of constitutional review which ultimately became the Constitutional Commission. Divisions within the ACC over the establishment of the Commission ultimately led to the withdrawal of the Commonwealth and two States from the ACC and created opposition to the Commission from the other States and the non-Labor side of politics, simultaneously weakening both bodies.
During its active phase, the Convention met in plenary session six times. Standing committees or sub-committees carried on the work in the intervals between plenary sessions. The Convention comprised delegations of Members of Parliament from the Commonwealth and all States, and the two mainland Territories. It also included representatives of local government. The parliamentary delegations were appointed by resolutions of their respective Parliaments. To reflect the range of opinion in each Parliament as fully as possible, most delegations for most plenary sessions comprised equal numbers of government and non-government Members and representatives of both Houses where the Parliament was bicameral. The Convention committees, including the Executive Committee, were a microcosm of the plenary sessions, with members representing both sides of politics in each participating jurisdiction.
The ACC agenda ranged over the entire Constitution and was responsible for a wide array of papers, opinions and records of political deliberations on current constitutional issues. And while for a time it was fashionable to decry the achievements of the ACC, in fact they were significant, in comparison with other efforts at constitutional review before and since. Three of the eight successful referendums to amend the Constitution since federation followed the 1976 Hobart session of the ACC and were directly or indirectly attributable to its proceedings: Senate Casual Vacancies, Retirement of Judges and Referendums, all in 1977. Other important developments of a constitutional kind, falling short of formal Commonwealth constitutional change but which also were the result of ACC deliberations, included the recognition and entrenchment of local government in most State Constitutions, the statutory requirement for consultation with the States over High Court appointments in the High Court of Australia Act 1979, an agreed political statement of all but the most contentious conventions associated with the Commonwealth Constitution, the cross-vesting of jurisdiction between Federal, State and Territory Courts, improved consultation between levels of government over Australian decisions to enter into treaty commitments and the device of a partial fixed term for the lower House of the Parliament, by the 1990s in use in Victoria and South Australia. In addition, less tangibly, the ACC provided a forum for Members of Parliament from all parts of the country to meet and deliberate on constitutional matters, engendering more understanding and tolerance of each other's perspectives than generally had existed in the past.
The Chief Executive Officer of the ACC throughout its entire operations was J.C. Finemore, QC, also Chief Parliamentary Counsel of Victoria until his retirement in 1984. The successes of the ACC, the goodwill and camaraderie within committees, its very survival in difficult times were largely the result of his patience, perception and tenacity. His belief in the benefits of an approach to constitutional review which transcended party political divisions influenced all who had the privilege to work with him and is a legacy for future generations.
Cheryl Saunders, August 1997, from Heather McRae and Anne Mullins, Australian Constitutional Convention 1973-1985: A Guide to the Archives, Centre for Comparative constitutional Studies, The University of Melbourne, 1998: Historical Overview, pp.3-7